Simple Gifts – Missa Russica

The quirky independent French label Edition Hortus hits all the right buttons for me. They refuse to follow fashions, and continue to find unexplored repertoire, and present it with a passion and flair that puts the major labels to shame. Missa Russica uncovers a treasure trove of sacred Russian choral music from little known composers – Stepan Degtiarev (1766-1813), Dimitri Bortniansky (1751-1825), Maxine Berezovsky (1745-1777), Artemy Vedel (1770?-1808), and Mikhail Strokine (1832-1887) - see below for biographical note on Strokine. During the 18th century Italian composers lived and worked in the imperial court in St Petersburg, and these Russian composers assimilated Western compositional techniques into an East/West fusion of sacred choral music. The majority of the pieces were intended for performance during Holy Communion, while the sacraments were being taken by the priests and the congregation waited. The excellent performances are by the Riga Russian Orthodox Music Choir, which was founded in 1989 as the first professional ensemble in Latvia specialising in the performance of sacred music. The direction is by Archpriest Johann Shenrock who works as a pastor in the diocese of Riga.

East/West fusion discs have emerged as one of the few lively segments in the CD market in 2006, and commercial exploitation is evident with reconstructions, elaborations, improvisation and other ‘improvements’. So it is refreshing that Missa Russica plays it straight and lets the music speak for itself. This disc is very well worth exploring, not just for students of sacred music, but also for anyone wanting to experience an accessible, and little known, musical backwater. The good news is that this is volume 1 in the series, and I look forward to volume 2 with anticipation.

* Mikhail Strokine is one of very few composers with no useful biographical entries on the internet. Here, to counter that, is the information on him from the excellent Missa Russica sleeve notes - Mikhail Porfirievitch Strokine (1832-1887) remains shrouded in mystery. All we know is that he was a voice teacher in St Petersburg and Kronstadt, and a composer of sacred music. His concertante approach to liturgical music places him with other composers on this recording in spite of the generation gap. In the "Canticle of Simeon" (for vespers), the choir accompanies the soloist, who is then at liberty to show the full extent of his art.

Now take An Overgrown Path to Brilliant Russian sacred choral music
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